Friday, August 31, 2007

One Night In Tolka

Longford were in town, I'd never had the pleasure of seeing them in the flesh before and felt as excited as Ronan O'Gara must have when he discovered platinum. I battled my way through the crowds at the schoolboy friendly in the shadow of Tolka Park. Within the stadium, the players were going through the usual prematch routines; Jamie Duffy and Ian Ryan were ruled out of this one; felt a bit stupid for forgetting that, but at least nobody knows. A late change meant Dave Freeman stepped down, Collie James stepped up.

The teams disappeared down the plastic tunnel; the build up began. First it was the 4th official, carrying everything. Then it was Aidan Price and Padraig Amond. What a welcome sight it must have been for the assembled Hoops followers to see the injured skipper bound into his seat. It must have been Mrs. Assistant Referee's turn to pick the colours, a nice summery yellow best suited her hair tone and skin complexion; it was nearly time for kick off.

A minute is a long time to clap, no matter how enthusiastic one is feeling. My hands were sore. Still, I yearned to see Ollie trundle across Tolka Park just one more time. And so it began! I had sensed banana skin about this game all week and was curious about how Pat Scully's side would approach the game.

Mark Rutherford should have done better from Dessie Baker's (read spectacular if you will, but it wasn't) overhead cross as the visitors turned the screw early on. Surely the names of Barry Ferguson and Alan Reynolds are already marked for yellow cards before kick off in every game; Pat Whelan had obviously forgotten to do so, but rectified the anomaly within the opening quarter.

Dessie Baker almost flicked his way through the Hoops' backline, but his incision was blunted. The roars of the behooped fans betrayed their nervousness at the effectiveness of the Town's opening. When Rennie saw yellow their opposites burst into a chorus of 'Reynolds you're a comeback', or words to that effect; the acoustics of Tolka Park sometimes distort the vocals.

Baker's form was as hot as fresh excrement; his free kick delivery snaked across the Rovers goal and beyond the far post. Dave Mooney kicked out, allegedly, as he lay on the ground; Pat Whelan seemingly couldn't hear the roars of the crowd and so took no action. Eventually following strenuous effort, Mooney got his card; thirty-two minutes had elapsed. The Town striker responded with an effort which flashed across Barry Murphy's goal; the bottom feeders were looking the most likely scorers at this stage.

Alan Matthews' side were matching their lustrous opposition in every department except defence. Here there were but two options for the Town throughout the game; as high as you can or as hard as you can. Still there was something discomforting about seeing Rovers outfought and outworked across the pitch. While they may have lacked finesse in defence and midfield, Longford possessed a definite threat in the skill of Mooney and Baker up front.

Any openings fell the visitors' way; it would be unfair to call them chances. Then Mooney found the net on the stroke of half time; the man in yellow had already blown for offside. Scoreless at the break, Hoops fans hoped that their title chasing side would improve in the second half. In the meantime, Raheny United's under 7 squad, jerseys down to their knees hogged the floodlight during the interval; eventually they were lured from the playing area.

No changes at half time then. Rovers went close; Mark Rutherford closer, in the early exchanges of the second half. And what a treasure it was to see the winger in action; his appearance at Tolka recalled many a cold Friday night which he warmed up for me with his searing pace on the left wing for Shels. The visitors claimed the prize for first corner of the game, it came to nowt.

Inexplicably, they became incontinent at the back for a brief period; but long enough to rouse the voices of the muted Hooperatzi. As the hour mark approached, Scully opted for a double substitution. If journos could talk they'd ask for Rennie - to be taken off- his presence disrupts the tempo of this Rovers side. I don't understand Pat Scully's thinking on this. The introduction of Paul Shiels immediately gave birth to a passing game from the home eleven. They began to find space; play football - in a game which to then had been chronically lacking in guile and poise.

Alan Matthews then opted for a substitution - he has been using them sparingly this season. The stadium announcer was filled with concern for the plight of the departing Collie James. The former Galway United man struggled to find his bench but was commended upon finally doing so by the friendly voice. Indeed, every chance that came their way was exploited to its maximium by the strugglers. Time was not of the essence to them, just a point.

Andy Myler could not believe his good fortune as the ball dropped to him in the opposition box; Sean Prunty appeared to step back, but urgently reconsidered in the nick of time. Flinging himself at the attacker, he managed to distract him sufficiently to avert the danger. Owen Doyle's introduction for Rovers seemed to temporarily enlighten their attacking ideas.

Panic was setting in on the Town bench; the visitors were beginning to fall back, and there were over fifteen minutes left to play. 'Get to the ball', screamed Matthews; not to suggest that Scully was entirely happy. The fourth official headed in his direction regularly throughout the second half, sedative in hand.

We search and search for turning points. I found one. Owen Doyle delivered impeccably from the left; for the second time in the half Longford's defence were sleeping. The ball dropped beautifully to David Cassidy. You know how it is, it never drops this way to you on the pitch, rarely in training, sometimes on the road. Casso let it bounce, then struck it meatily. We saw the first save of the game, and a worthy one it was.

Shay Kelly turned it away for a corner. There was some excellent postman on postman action as Ferguson and Doherty mailhandled each other in anticipation of the delivery. It too came to nowt. Rovers went for a tight front three, but Ger Rowe was strangely ineffective. No defender can ever take his eye off him, though; Rowe burst through, Doherty pulled him back, Rowe miscued, the centre half was booked. This was not in accordance with Pat Scully's wishes.

And so it seemed that it was to be a draw. Longford won a late free kick. Baker's delivery was once more, impeccable - possibly the best player on the park - it found Damien Brennan all alone on the far side. His header combined three necessary attributes. It was firm. It was downward. It was accurate. It was offside. It was the last minute of the prescribed ninety. Much frustration for the gallant and enthusiastic Longford supporters.

The fourth official has indicated that there will be a minimum of three extra minutes. Woo-hoo, three minutes for the Hoops to snatch one of those lovely late winners. STAND UP IF YOU'RE LONGFORD TOWN, and they did. Proud of their players, proud of their point. Suddenly Mooney is on the ball at the Ballybough end; as ever Ferguson is in close attendance. Close enough to grab a firm hold of Mooney's shirt. The striker ignores the action; he only has eyes for goal. He slips the grip, then slips the ball beyond Barry Murphy - Murphy can see it, but he cannot reach it; it's going in, yes, it's going in, it's in - because you're worth it.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Back to Basics

In what I feel has thus far resembled a professional effort from our domestic top dogs , all has been undermined by the farcical situation of the Bray Wanderers away strip episode. Having remarked last time out on the wisdom of allowing games to be broadcast live, the spectacle of what looked like a Ragball Rovers eleven trotting across the canyon of my plasma screen was an embarrassing one.

Lest my blog is targeted by Seagull Suicide Bombers let me balance that statement by complimenting the Wanderers on their impressive efforts on the night. However, someone, somewhere is responsible for the mess that the kit clash left us with on Monday night.

Think about it, the expense involved in setting up the OB Unit, flying Felix and Curt by chopper to the Peoples' Republic and turning on the floodlights. We are selling an image; we are competing with the most image driven football league in the world. We need any help we can get. And then this sh1t happens!

Think of the time and effort that Bray Wanderers will have put into securing a shirt sponsor for the season - think about the promise of live TV exposure - a huge factor in swaying a potential victim. The live game comes around, the sponsor (HARD METAL in this case) lies back in his plush leather chair and pushes the cigar button. Another push produces a 12-year-old scotch. The final push beams Setanta Sports onto the office wall.

The colour combination was not easy on the eye, looking like the design efforts of a deeply depressed homosexual. Even a referee could tell that either of Bray's kits would clash with the Cork toothpaste jersey. Only a set of shirts was needed to rectify the situation- not a full kit, but this was somehow not conceived by the Wicklow club.

In the interests of appearance, why couldn't the home side slip into this season's away strip? Then we would not have the ridiculous situation of players running around with blacked out names on the backs of their shirts. Cork in their away kit with Bray in theirs would have presented a more aesthetically pleasing picture than that with which we were presented. A poor effort it was at blacking out names too, as George O'Callaghan's shirt graced Turner's Cross again, alongside Neil Fenn's.

A small but crucially important detail which can be nipped in the bud at the beginning of every season. Clubs present their strip for inspection by a referee who then adjudicates on which strips clash. Even junior leagues issue such details to every club at the beginning of a season, there is no excuse for it at the highest level. It has made our game look awkwardly amateur and it is fiercely annoying, for these incidents are indicative of one of our greatest talents - the ability to shoot oneself accurately and regularly in the foot. A talent which I felt we were in the process of burying. It must not happen again.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Confessions of an Unfaithful Lover.

Since my conversion from Premiership swallower to League of Ireland lover I have experienced a strange anaesthaesia while looking on at the continuing demise of my former partners in football, Leeds United. No, you are not about to endure another monologue which observes the symbiosis of Shelbourne and Leeds. That ground is well trodden.

Upon bumping into, or even espying former lover from a safe distance, one is powerless. Immediately the object of your former affection is scanned and evaluated; comparisons are drawn with the last known sighting. If there is time, one will draw some conclusions once the new information has been processed and filed. If not, the assimilation will take place at the next opportune moment; not that the population contains many of my exes. They've all emigrated for Gender Regeneration Surgery type thing.

From the time I was knee high to Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner I was a Leeds fan. Now that I stand shoulder to shoulder with those two giants of English football I have left my Elland Road days behind me.

Strangely, I never managed to let go of the coincidences that have occurred since that painless parting. League of Ireland football is often pitched as equal to the Championship and Football League One. Since taking up the cause for domestic football on our island the Yorkshire club have been excreted from the Premiershop and it's feeder division.

Unable to fund regular trips across the nuked waters of the Irish Sea, TV and later the interweb were to be my connection to LUFC, Pride of Yorkshire. But now the level at which they conduct their business is available on my doorstep; a higher level in some cases.

This made me feel fortunate; like you feel if you spot an ex exiting the STD clinic - should you happen to be passing that way. Then - Shock and Awe, Shite 'n' Onions; I saw the attendance figure for Dennis Wise's side against mighty Southend at Elland Road. 24,036. Twenty four thousand and thirty six! Better than five of the attendance totals from the top tier in Engerland.

I was feeling a little queasy; that bird you dumped is worth a fortune and she's into you and you could put up with the lifestyle and her. Serial unemployable's sort of queasy. Queasy gave way to envy.

If we got that figure for an FAI Cup Final we would be well sated. Leeds has a population of less than 1/2 a million (people, of course). All too rare are the occasions when an Irish football arena heaves with energy, intensity and atmosphere; it doesn't have to be full to achieve this status.

Week upon week we are feted with live action now; a welcome advertisement for our game, yes; but a woeful one. Cameras pan across ramshackle areas, bereft of man or beast, just the odd guard or lonely steward who stands out all the more for his fluorescent garb. The sense of atmosphere is minimal; Paul Cook saying that 10 fans travelled to Waterford for the league game is fodder for the hurlers on the ditch.

The kite has been flown across the water that eventually, when the Premiershop has eaten itself, fans will disappear. They will then be replaced by an audience, who have been given free tickets to the game. Whether or not there will be a stage manager provoking applause at appropriate moments remains to be seen.

What if we were to give free tickets to our games? Promote a League of Ireland Festival week. Open Days a la last season, building up to a weekend of free admission at every fixture. Investment would be needed to at least give the appearance of hygiene and upkeep at the grounds - the kind of clean sweep the bathroom gets when you get the 10 minute raid warning from your mother.

Potentially full houses would mean extra crowd control duties and more Gardai; a financial input from the FAI would be welcome; some extra sponsorship on foot of the extra incoming could help to defray some of the cost. Some of this may seem fatuous, but a cold eye cast on our game reveals little to attract the lazy punter.

Things have improved, live games were often flagged as a potential draw; I'm beginning to believe that some of the ties are doing more harm than good. We need more say in what is broadcast. The Derry City / Finn Harps game presents a perfect example. Oozing intensity and rivalry before a full house, it would certainly have come across better on screen than the soggy offering from the wide open spaces of the RSC. There is something squirmworthy about getting a clear view of PC World and the passing traffic in the background. It distracts your attention from the game. What's the weather like in Waterford now? Is that bus full? Oh there's a goal.

Maybe a well stuffed weekly magazine with highlights, interviews and an improved time slot is the way to go; until we get our houses in order.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Put a Cork in it

Often entertaining but this time just plain boring, mainly due to the lack of quality in his procrastinative efforts. It was more of the same from Dr. Damo -A Doctor of Words - 'my players are in there saying you can't get a penalty in Dublin'.

Given time for measured reflection I am sure that Damo accepts that in this case the officials were spot on. But there have been too many excuses from the Cork City camp this season; the visible panty line is that the Leesiders have fallen behind.

Many claim that the league winning side of two season's ago was Pat Dolan's legacy to Cork City; Damian Richardson came in, picked up the reins and waved as his new charges charged to the summit. 2003, '04 and '05 saw City finish 3rd, 2nd and 1st respectively. Last season they slumped to fourth, a lack of firepower ultimately proving to be their John O'Flynn's heel as their impervious back five supported the weight of a title challenge.

Already deprived of the talents of Kevin Doyle and later the perplexing gifts of George O'Callaghan, the rot was setting in for Cork City. Dan Murray was becoming an increasingly important source of goals; his five in 2006 almost matching the efforts of Denis Behan and the somewhat delicate O'Flynn both of whom managed just six in the league. The late discovery that Roy O'Donovan could actually get you a goal or two if played down the centre boosted hopes for this season.

The boss spoke of financial constraints, as did chairman Brian Lennox. Danny Murphy took his ringcraft to Motherwell at the end of the season. The protracted deal for Alan Bennett was finally concluded and some much needed folding was in the coffers. The FIFA 2 saga was an unforeseen blow to hopes of success.

But it wasn't in midfield were Richardson's side were lacking. The defence which had conceded just 33 times in 63 outings spread across the previous two seasons was coming apart. Pickled observers espoused the theory that SuperDan would be exposed without Alan Bennett scurrying around his ankles. It seems they were right. Far from watertight, they are now conceding at the rate of a goal per game; or in old money, 20 goals in 20 games.

None better than the mighty Paul Osam will tell you that if you are conceding a goal per game you will need two goals to win in this league. Obviously, he may not have shared this nugget with Damo. When one takes cognisance of the in- tray of both UCD and Galway United - bottom buddies both with 22 in the goals against column from 21 outings - it puts Cork's defensive demise in perspective.

Dan Murray's visceral forward charges have all but evaporated; a sure sign of a lack of confidence in the housesitters. Thus a necessary source of goals has dried up, his number but one this term.

This leads us to the talents of Roy O'Donovan; 14 goals in 17 starts is a phenomenal strike rate and he two-leggedly kept his side ticking over while they waited for July 1st to arrive. Those goals are no more; though the club are pocketing another 1/2 million or so.

A scan through the goalscorers column at the cross reveals the source of Damo's frustration - at the minute Cork City need every penalty they can get - whether there has been a foul committed or no. His striking options centre on the out of sorts John O'Flynn a player whose persistent injury problems are preventing him from reaching the higher notes of his undoubted talent. He has managed a paltry two goals so far, and is second only to the memory of O'Donovan in the scoring chart. The jury is out on newcomer Leon McSweeney; he has at least broken his duck. Denis Behan remains confined largely to cameos; surely a suggestion that the boss doesn't feel that the Limerick man can provide the requisite goals.

In fact, Damian Richardson has presided over the dismantling of his title winning squad and has not adequately filled the vacuum therein. Youngsters at the club are either not ready or not good enough - their time will come if they are. But for all his procrastinating and pontificating el Rico has got to improve the level of talent within his playing staff if they are to challenge for title honours again. The fact that they are still in with a shout for second spot reflects poorly on St. Pats more so than it does positively on the achievements of the Rebels.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cup Final Appearances Help You Breathe More Easily

Not just Cup Final appearances, but sweet victories over your fiercest rivals. Sean Connor has yet to sample defeat at the hands of the Hoops while Bohemians boss.

The preamble to this semi-final presented two sides that had fallen out of form. Rovers were three games without a win; Bohs had conceded five in their previous three outings and hadn't managed a goal in four. Not much to tempt the lazy neutral onto a bus there then.

But there was so much at stake, so many permutations. Rovers have been a revelation this term; their fearless flight to the higher reaches of the eL canopy would be worthy of the sparkle that a Cup final appearance brings; to capture the trophy would indeed be the ketchup on the breakfast roll. Not that Pat Scully would publicly admit to such thoughts before the season's end.

Sean Connor presents a quizzical figure to many of his club's staunchest supporters. Point out that Bohs' situation is far superior to the mud in which they frolicked last season and they will remind you that SC has been facilitated at every turn by a benign board. His side have been an ugly duckling all season; the momentous FAI Cup win at United Park suggested that a swan lay within. They remained within striking distance of the league title until the recent discovery of their inner Donald Duck. The natives were growing increasingly restless.

The non-performance at Flancare Park with undertones of player unrest meant it was time for SC to discard his comical red bloomers and begin to look like a top drawer football manager. Joxer and Ricer felt the fruits of his indignation. Heroes of the Ultras, SC was putting his scrotum on a cold surface.

As such, the atmosphere around Dalymount Park was a little subdued. While naturally wanting their side to prevail; there was comfort to be had in defeat - the pleasure of watching an enemy walk awkwardly away with his scrotum in his pocket.

It all started so well - Mick McCarthy and his entourage mingled, he and Sean have now met three, er two, times. Larry welcomed the Hooperatzi, then played the scary music over the PA - the gladiators entered the sunkissed arena. God, who is obviously a member at Bohs, supplied a light sprinkling of rain, just enough for slick passing.

Owen Heary had a headed opportunity early on; should have done better he was doubtless muttering to himself as he trotted back from his far-post attack. The boss could hardly contain his glee as Joxer set off on a run; stubbornly persisting with the outside option. It was to be the one and only occasion, but David McGill can't have known that as he flailed in the wake of the gifted midfielder.

Ryan McCann was in for Stephen 'deal or no deal' Rice. the newcomer started brightly. He looked sharp and interested in getting forward. Rossiter's 16th minute dismissal after a couple of launches robbed Bohs of McCann's attacking ideas. There was little time for the niceties as the home side battled with 3 v 4 in the midfield area.

It was a bitty half; mishit, overhit, underhit and then there were the hits. Voices on both sides of Dalyer bayed for blood and retribution. The Gypsys threatened mainly from deadball situations. Rovers and deadball situations? Well think of a granny who's lost her glasses and can't find her teeth as a result. David Tyrrell's introduction early in the second half remedied this acknowledged weakness in the Hoops armoury. Until then, they didn't threaten Brian Murphy, or his goal, to any significant degree.

Tyrrell had just arrived on the field when the hosts should have opened the scoring. Kelly was the artist- the Billy Elliot of Dalymount Park - Glen Crowe the wrecking ball, as he spurned a gift that the aforementioned granny may well have converted. Groans from the Jodi mixed with sighs from Connaught Street merging as they drifted into the Phibsboro sky.

It was easy to forget that Sean Connor's men were numerically challenged; their efforts never betrayed it - Rovers' never exploited it. True, Pat Scully's side were as industrious as ever. The hari-kari tackling had abated and the duo attempted to offer us some football. But the industry of both sets of players refused to allow it; Damien Hancock was still producing yellow cards ad nauseum, only now they were for minor infringements. There have been rumours that the official fell asleep with yellow card in hand on Tuesday evening, and booked his missus. Whether this happened once or twice is still subject to confirmation.

The goal was a creeper; you never really saw it coming. Yet another average looking ball arrived in the Rovers' penalty area - Crowe rose again, then he was buried - under a sweaty human sea of black and red. From Pat Scully's viewpoint it was a soft goal, definitely not the sort that his side are accustomed to conceding, but they all count.

Rovers were now upping the pace as the minutes rolled by. Scully used his three permitted replacements. Connor kept faith with his ten warriors. Tadhg Purcell slipped the Bohs defensive line; this one had equaliser all over it - if you were standing on the Connaught Street side. Murphy got a look and a touch; Purcell attempted to redeem himself by laying the ball back. DANGER! DANGER! The defenders were heading en masse in the direction of the ball; the inexperience of youth must have shot through Pat Scully like the pain of a carelessly bitten ice pop. His attackers were also drawn to the ball. At the opposite post was a space large enough to build a drug dealer's bungalow. Men with measuring tapes scurried from the playing area as the ball dropped into the unoccupied real estate; danger averted.

Yet, not ended. The Hoops rolled forward again; there were plenty of red and black shirts in close attendance. The ball arrived from Des Byrne's wing, the full back got a toe on it- only to divert the white orb into the path of the goalbound Purcell. Murphy again showed why he will be a serious contender for Player of the Season. You have just read the kiss of death.

It was disconcerting to see the energy drain from the Gypsys upon the occasion of any deadball situation awarded in their favour. They crawled with none of their might towards the ball on such occasions; then sprang to life whenever danger presented itself. Connor must have noticed this, because he finally introduced a substitute. Joxer was withdrawn in favour of the effective interventions of Thomas Heary.

There was to be one last push from the never say pass away Hoops; Purcell again tested Murphy, who at this stage definitely had enough points for his chosen course. Somehow the ball reappeared and headed for what Americans call the endline. The promised four minutes of added time had elapsed as the visitors prepared to take a corner. Barry Murphy wiped the blood from his nose as he cantered into the opposition box. Opposing players exchanged greetings and admired the quality of the stitching on each other's shirts. Suddenly it was incoming.

All eyes were on the ball. Heading in the direction of a hooped jersey? No. A striped jersey? No. Barry Murphy's jersey! The 'keeper rose - had his moment of glory arrived before he ever got to appear on Big Brother? Were we to 'enjoy' extra time in the most ironic of manners? It was 'keeper v 'keeper. Murphy v Murphy, yet the legal profession were as powerless as the rest of us. It became apparent that the trajectory of the ball was going to take it over the bar, and so it was.

Damien put his card away and blew long and hard on his yellow whistle. The Jodi stand erupted for the umpteenth time. Did SC grin a wry grin?

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Is That Window Closed?

Part lottery, part game of skill part time and fulltime. That's League of Ireland football 2007 vintage. Some strap thorns to their feet and scale Croagh Patrick naked; real martyrs stand before the tank that is the Premiership in an effort to instil pride, affection and support for our domestic league into the hearts of the flocks of Wild Geese who migrate each weekend to further line the pockets of the franchise holders across the Irish Sea.

I was apoplectic on Thursday morning; the love-hate relationship I share with Tom McGuirk boiled over badly. The gruff radio presenter was interviewing BBC Radio 5 man and WBA fanatic Adrian Chiles. Chiles has written a book querying the madness of adult fascination with supporting second rate football clubs, as opposed to the mega-successful ones. As a native of the Black Country he grew up supporting the Baggies, there's nothing untoward in that.

McJerk was rising in my esteem as he ranted on about the footballing elite across channel; pointing to the fact that they win everything, no one else has a chance football is ruined. With no credit on my phone, I yearned for an eL fan to be at his keyboard rapping out an e mail. As the interview progressed I actually began to feel that the host was going to burst into a soliloquy on our own league.

And then this happened.... Chiles says something along the lines of' Well you know Tom, Irish people need to stop supporting the Man U's and Liverpools' - McJerk was snorting in agreement -' and start following the likes of us'- 'Yes, yes' sayeth the nodding host. AAARRGGHH! Where are those thorns?

Meanwhile, back at the underground HQ of the eircom League of Ireland the shutters are coming down on the transfer window. A month which managers crave and loathe in equal amounts. An opportunity to boost the quality of your playing staff, but it involves relentless pursuit of player after player in an effort to seduce them with your product.

Paradoxically, the two most dormant clubs have been at either ends of the spectrum, but for very different reasons - Drogheda United and Wexford Youths. Buying players is anathema to Mick Wallace, he'll just promote another lad from the Under 17's. Paul Doolin is still bedding in the quality which he added at the start of the campaign.

With the business end of the season closing in the window represents a last throw of the teacup for those with aspirations of silverware or a European slot; maybe Setanta qualification or to make the play-offs; in some cases to avoid the play-offs.

Given Drogheda's horrid - that word is there to appeal to any females who may have stumbled upon this blog - time with injuries this term, the fact that they top the pile with a game in hand suggests what I already knew; it's there's to lose. So this was John McDonnell's shot at reeling in the Drogs. The end result suggests that the Saints continue to be top heavy with midfielders and a bit shy at either end of the park. At best Dave Rogers is steady as she goes, Glen Fitzpatrick offers an alternative to Pats current style up front. It's early doors - one for the barstoolers - with regards to Keane, Gibson, Barker and Macek. In fact, the most significant boost to Pats will be the return to fitness of Joe Ndo. He is ideally suited to their 3-5-2 system and adds a dimension unmatched by any other player in the league.

Shamrock Rovers were never likely to compete in the marketplace with the top two, but Pat Scully is not the type of man to let weeds prosper on his carefully cultivated lawn. His squad definitely needed an injection of experience, and as any Hoops fan will tell you, someone to deliver a dead ball properly. Dave Tyrrell provides a little of both. John Martin knows his way around the Premier Division dressing ground. Alan Reynolds smacks of my kind of shopping i.e. half price because it's about to pass its sell by date. There's no doubting his 'experience', but he is a long way from match fit. Should the Hoops be in the final shake-up he will have something to offer. They are experiencing a performance dip of late and I believe that there is not much left in their tanks. Hoping to be wrong here because they certainly deserve some reward for their superhuman efforts thus far. They are smack in the middle of the country's fulltime set-ups - Galway excluded - a fantastic achievement for the promoted side.

Sean Connor continues to frustrate at Dalymount Park, but that is not to dismiss the fact that his side are a work in progress. Plenty of experience, yes, but definite room for improvement. Impatience is not a rare commodity in Phibsboro; SC will most likely need Setanta qualification to buy him some oxygen. Those boys need to feel important. Sorry, I'm all out of smilies.

The Corkies are taking two steps forward, one step back. Healy and Farrelly are in, but it seems Royboy and his golden boot will soon be gone. City's season hinges on this. Denis Behan is a bit player, John O'Flynn is an in bits player. The burden falls upon the novice shoulders of Leon McSweeney. There is ample power in the engine room, enough to compensate for a defence as tight as an aged hot water bottle.

Paul Cook has re-ignited Sligo Rovers; he certainly seems to be an asset to this league but will have to stop seeing penalties for the opposition. It's up to the Management Committee to treat him well now, for they may well have mined a jewel.

'Tis early days yet for John Robertson, but just shifting the deadwood has improved the atmosphere at the Randywell and he has a quality squad believing in themselves again; now if he could just squeeze a few goals out of them.

Dropping down its time to purchase the memorial cards at Flancare Park. Longford Town, once the PD's of Irish football have suffered a similar ignominy to their political counterparts and it appears to be all over at the top table for Alan Matthews side. Only the buffoonery of Waterford United can save the Town from the automatic drop now.

Bray Wanderers and Galway United have their rear ends dangling dangerously over the drop zone - a poor performance from the Westerners, a learning curve for Tony Cousins. UCD have begun to expect to win games; a dangerous habit for a side which needs to muster everything in every game to maintain its midtable safety.

The First Division is providing us with an intriguing battle for the title. After an abject opening Cobh Ramblers have steered themselves into a challenging position against what was undoubtedly the strongest squad in the division at the off. Dundalk still look to have the strongest squad, but danger looms. Finn Harps have finally woken from their slumber and will take points off anybody in this league; the same can be said of lowly Shelbourne.

Dermot Keely must have thought he had been dreaming for four months; come July he enters the dressing room and his team are there. Limerick 37 cannot be discounted; this weekend's meeting with Harps is crucial; somebody needs to wound the Donegal side in order to halt their momentum. Should Higgsy's men take anything from Jackman Park it's hard to see them not take the third spot.

That took longer than expected; now where have I heard that before?

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